Tour de France flashback, 2005: Facing retirement, Lance Armstrong claims seventh title

Publisher’s note: Lance Armstrong’s seventh Tour de France victory also marked the end of my seventh Tour de France. I’ve returned six more times for the victories (and in two instances subsequent disqualifications) of Floyd Landis, Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans.

At the time, Armstrong’s final victory was special. But it has all changed. Armstrong’s second comeback and the relentless pursuit of his connections to doping make my article from the Sacramento Bee (July 25, 2005) and thousands of other accounts of the day fiction.

Like other reporters who documented the occasion, I thought I knew what I was witnessing and reported it to the best of my abilities. It was important in the world of cycling and for a rare occasion the niche sport transcended the endurance sports world.  It marked one of the most memorable occasions in all of sport. Now, it’s all been erased except for the memories.

PARIS — Amid unsettled skies, historic monuments and a final burst of late afternoon sun, Lance Armstrong ended his improbable and remarkable career Sunday.

Riding among 154 other cyclists, Armstrong, 33, captured his unparalleled seventh straight Tour de France title on the Champs Elysees.

With the exception a near fall on a slick corner halfway through the 89.8-mile 21st stage from Corbeil-Essonnes, the Austin, Texas, rider spent the final four hours of his career accepting acknowledgments.

The respect came from teammates and competitors, all fully aware of the victor’s athletic accomplishments and his now his nearly decade recovery from metaticized testicular cancer.

As Armstrong’s race finished and as the first moments of his retirement began, the divorced father of three children, philanthropist, partner of musician Sheryl Crow, businessman and partial cycling team owner, had uniquely completed the 2,232-mile race. He didn’t win a road stage, but he rode in command.

Armstrong’s team, while not as dominating as in previous years, supported the leader of the Discovery Channel squad when they could. And then they witnessed Armstrong ride to the race’s fastest-ever time.

With a team time time trial win, three seconds in individual stages and an individual time trial win in stage 20, Armstrong averaged 25.87 mph. The effort eclipsed the mark of 25.43 mph Armstrong set two years ago.

“Come Monday morning, we’re going to wake up in Paris, and the kids and Sheryl and I and a group of close friends and family . . . we’re going to fly to the south of France and enjoy ourselves for a week and lay on the beach,” said Armstrong, who announced his retirement last April.

“We’re going to drink wine and not ride a bike and eat a lot of food and swim in the pool, splash around with my kids and not worry.”

Ivan Basso (CSC) of Italy, who tried repeatedly but couldn’t reduce his deficit, finished second, trailing Armstrong by 4 minutes and 40 seconds.

Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile) of Germany, the 1997 race winner and Armstrong’s strongest rival throughout his career, placed third, 6:21 behind.

Said Ullrich of Armstrong, to whom he’s finished second three times, “Hats off to Lance; He is superman.”

As in previous Armstrong victory years, hundreds of thousands spectators packed in grandstands and stood several deep along the cobblestones of the race finish. Many Americans, cycling fans and cancer survivors, wearing various Armstrong yellow attire and jewelry, were among the throngs.

The crowd, which included Armstrong’s mother, his children and various close friends, stood in periodic rain. But as the riders finished the final of nine laps of a four-mile circuit, the sunshine arrived and reflected off the golden rooftops of the nearby ornate government buildings and statues.

The event’s 92nd edition began July 2 on the island of Noirmoutier on the west coast of France with 189 riders representing 21 teams.

In addition to Armstrong, who completed his career with 11th Tour participations, 22 individual stage wins and three team time trial victories, seven other Americans participated. They collectively compiled the strongest-ever U.S. showing.

Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner) of Santa Rosa, began the final day in fifth, but slipped to sixth, 20 seconds behind final stage winner Alexandre Vinokourov (T-Mobile) of Kazakhstan.

Floyd Landis (Phonak) of San Diego, who like Leipheimer is a former Armstrong teammate, placed ninth. George Hincapie (Discover Channel) of Greenville, S.C., finished 14th; Bobby Julich (CSC) of Reno, Nev., a former Sacramentan, finished 17th; Chris Horner (Saunier Duval-Prodir) of Bend, Ore., was 33rd; and Fred Rodriguez (Davitamon-Lotto) of Emeryville was 132nd.

David Zabriskie (CSC) of Salt Lake City won the opening stage, but he eventually withdrew from injuries suffered in a stage 4 crash.

Hincapie, the only teammate remaining from Armstrong’s first Tour win in 1999, captured the 15th stage to St. Lary Soulan in the Pyrenees, the race’s most severe day. It marked the first time an Armstrong teammate was victorious during his Tour reign.

While progressing on a clockwise course that advanced for two days into Germany and briefly touched into Spain, Armstrong took the lead with his team’s time trial win in stage 4. He lost it for a day in stage nine then regained it in stage 10 with a strong climb and a second place finish to the ski resort Courchevel in the Alps.

It was the turning point of the race. Armstrong maintained the lead until the end. He rode strategically, saying he pedaled in the “red zone,” or at extreme exertion, only twice in the race.

Armstrong also seemingly made a concerted effort to enjoy his last Tour. He was jovial in post-race press conferences. At one point, he briefly traded baseball caps with a reporter and wore the hat of the German T-Mobile team.

As the race’s waning days passed, Armstrong began to daily reveal his feelings. In in his post 20th stage debriefing Armstrong said:

“I’ve had an unbelievable career. I’ve been blessed to ride 14 years as a professional; I’ve been blessed to win some big bike races before my illness and to win the Tour seven times after my illness.

“I’ve been blessed with financial reward that I never thought was possible — it makes my life and my children’s life very comfortable now. There’s no reason to continue. It’s time for a new face, it’s time for a new story – no regrets.”

Armstrong said he would return to the Tour next year, but only an advisory role to his team, which he partially owns. And despite now reaching his cycling retirement, Armstrong said he wouldn’t leave his sporting life.

“I can’t promise I won’t show up at a few cyclo-cross events or mountain bike or triathlon races or a 10k or even a marathon,” he said. “I’m an athlete. I’ve been competing in swimming and running events since I was 12 years old.”

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